Students show 3D printing can be used to copy "difficult to duplicate" designs with ease

"If we show that mechanical locks are vulnerable to key duplication just by having a handful of numbers you can download off the internet, hopefully they ‘ll be phased out more quickly... Either that or make 3D printers illegal," warns Eric Van Albert, a 21-year-old engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in an interview with Forbes, following his keynote at Def Con 21.

Along with fellow student and researcher David Lawrence, Mr. Van Albert showed off a software tool that used scans from a flatbed scanner of a highly advanced "secure" key design to create a 3D model of the key and then duplicate it via online printing services Shapeways (nylon; $5 USD) and i.Materialise (titanium: $150 USD).

The researchers focused their efforts on Schlage Lock Comp.'s flagship secure-key solution, dubbed Primus.  Primus keys carry glaring "do not duplicate" message, which references Schlage's patent on its two-tracked toothed key design, U.S. Patent No. 5,808,858.  The patent was filed in 1997 and granted in 1998.  The keys are typically used by law enforcement, mental health institutions, and military detention centers; they are even personally recommended by famous lockpick expert Marc Weber Tobias who wrote the much-referenced 1970 textbook on security Locks, Safes, and Security.

Schlage Primus
3-D Printing subverts Schlage's high-end, high-security patented "PRIMUS" key design.

Inspired by security expert Bruce Schneier's "Sneakey" project, which has performed duplication of keys based on photos taken from hundreds of feet away, the pair of MIT researchers studied the Schlage keys and the patents involved carefully, looking to unlock their secrets.

David Lawrence printed schlage keys
David Lawrence (left) along with another MIT student researcher found a way to print Schlage high security keys. [Image Source: Forbes (right)]

They found two unique numeric codes -- six numbers cut into the top of the key and another set of five in its sidecut.  Describes Mr. Lawrence, age 20:

In the past if you wanted a Primus key, you had to go through Schlage. Now you just need the information contained in the key, and somewhere to 3D-print it.  You can take a high security ‘non-duplicatable’ key and basically take it to a virtual hardware store to get it copied.

All you need is a friend that works there, or to take a picture of their key, or even a picture of the key hanging off their belt.  Pirating keys is becoming like pirating movies. Someone still has to get the information in the first place, but then everyone can get a copy.  Our message is that you can do this for any high-security key.  It didn’t take that much work. In the future there will be models available online for almost any kind of key you’re looking for.  There’s no way of getting the cat back in the bag when you can print a New York city fire elevator key.  Those files won’t go away.

Mr. Lawrence is referring to a set of keys sold in 2012 by a retired New Jersey locksmith to an undercover reporter with The NY Post.  The keys were capable of shutting down elevators, opening subway gates and even getting into electric circuit breaker boxes all over New York City.  The NY Post briefly printed a picture of the keys taken Tamara Beckwith, but has since taken it down, realizing it could be used by locksmiths to create illicit copies.  However, that image still lingers on the internet, such as the version below which we found at The Huffington Post.

NY Master Keys
The NY master key set: (left to right) electrical panel key, fire elevator key, traffic light key, fireman service key, fire alarm box key [Image Source: NY Post via The Huffington Post]

The 3D-printing hack is the latest controversy over the hot do-it-yourself manufacturing technology.  Thus far the greatest debate has surrounded the rise of self-printed plastic guns like "The Liberator", which the Obama administration's justice wing has eyed warily and begun to crack down on.

One of the first demoes of using the technology to "hack" keys was given by "Ray", a German lockpicking expert who spoke at HOPE 2012 ("Hope Number Nine"), held in New York City, New York.  He used 3-D printing and laser cutters to reproduce high-security handcuff keys, which are interchangeable to allow any officer to unlock a suspect's handcuffs.  The presenter suggested would-be criminals could smuggle a set on their person and use it to escape if they were detained.

Sources: Def Con 21, Forbes

"Mac OS X is like living in a farmhouse in the country with no locks, and Windows is living in a house with bars on the windows in the bad part of town." -- Charlie Miller

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